On their 1983 debut, Murmur, REM marked themselves as one of America’s most important new acts, subsequently ushering in an entirely new format of music in college radio. Almost thirty years later, they’ve returned with their fifteenth record, and as Max Easton writes, it’s not what it once was.
Pluck REM out of existence and the music you know and love today would be irreparably different. Without REM, the influential juggernauts of Radiohead and Nirvana become completely different beasts, and from there lies almost all else. They’re arguably the most influential band of the last 30 years, and you get the feeling while listening to their new record Collapse Into Now, that they were all too aware of that fact when they sat down to prepare it.
The record opens with Discoverer, an attempt to build suspense with Peter Buck’s jangled, distorted guitar driving behind Michael Stipe’s appropriate opening sentiments; “Hey baby, this is not a challenge, it just means that I love you as much as I always did. I was wrong.” Yet as far as the legions of REM tragics are concerned, each and every one of their releases is a direct challenge to their impossibly high expectations. REM know this, and while maligned latter-day records like Up have aged to find their worth, Collapse Into Now feels like a conscious attempt to reconnect with the love they lost with their timid releases of the recent past…and it very nearly succeeds.
Where Discoverer falls flat, it’s tracks like the sweeping ballads of Uberlin and Oh My Heart that enrich this record. Uberlin plays host to Buck’s ever-present arpeggiated acoustic while Stipe does Stipe with his characteristic yelps and lurches. Meanwhile, Oh My Heart plays out as Stipe’s reflectively lost philosophy of a world changed, a thinly-veiled Hurricane Katrina its backdrop. Sweeping and tragic, it’s a place where faith has become a confused cut and paste of flawed ideas, where the only thing that has changed is the government that watches over a city half erased.
The album continues through It Happened Today and Every Day Is Yours to Win, flawed ballads that dip the proceedings into hallowed, REM by numbers territory. Stipe’s voice is appropriately echoed, Buck and Mills sing their backing moans at the correct moments and Buck continues through arpeggiated guitar lines. Then the album gets a kick start with Mine Smell Like Honey, evoking Monster more than Automatic Of the People. It may be a bastardised, caffeinated ‘Cuyahoga,’ but it’s not exactly unwelcome. Another dip in Walk It Back precedes 2011’s ‘End of the World As We Know It’ in Alligator Aviator Autopilot Antimatter, featuring the well-received vocal aggression of Peaches. That Someone Is You is another blazer, with all the power of Green-era pop, rounding out the four corners of REM.
It’s the end of the album where Collapse Into Now shines. Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando and I is a gorgeous serenade, the sun peeking through storm clouds, drifting into the only moment on the record which signifies REM stepping outside of worn territory. Album closer Blue is everything this record should have been. Lazy, careering guitar sits behind Stipe’s broken, stream-of-consciousness poetry while the choked moans Patti Smith float in the background. It then pauses, breaks and collapses into the optimistic riff that opens the album in a perfectly designed bookend.
You’d be forgiven for expecting more from REM than what is delivered on Collapse Into Now. It’s very much REM playing REM, and while there are some truly stunning moments on this record, a band of this ilk should be able to do so much more with their resources than churn out more of the same with a few big name guests. There’s none of the innovation of Murmur here, but how could you expect them to be as ahead of their time in 2011 as they were in 1983? Collapse Into Now isn’t so much a failure as it is REM finding themselves overtaken by the bands they influenced. This is a very fine album by one of the most important groups of our time; an artifact of the last 30 years of rock music and despite its tendency for auto-plagiarism, a very welcome release.
Collapse Into Now by REM is out now on Warner Music.